Japan gives a muted welcome to spring

Japan declared the official opening of its cherry blossom season in Tokyo on Wednesday, although it will be a muted and less exuberant welcoming of spring than in previous years.

The Japan Meteorological Agency announced that the "someiyoshino" cherry tree in the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine that it uses every year to determine the start of cherry blossom season was 90 percent in bloom. The tree's pale pink flowers blossomed five days later than last year, the agency added.

Further north, in the hills around Morioka, larks were reportedly heard singing, the traditional indicator of the arrival of spring in that city.

There is little reason for festivities in Japan at the moment, however, as communities across the north of the country continue the clear-up of the devastation caused by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered. Those natural disasters were made worse by the damage they caused to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactor, which engineers are still trying to bring under control.

Combined, Japan's problems are playing havoc with its tourism industry.

Between March 11 and 31, an average of 3,400 foreign nationals arrived each day at Tokyo's Narita International Airport, down 75 percent from the same period last year. Similarly, the number of foreign arrivals at Osaka's Kansai International Airport came to 1,700 people a day between March 18 and 23, down more than 50 percent.

The decline in the number of tourists arriving in Japan has been made worse by the thousands of foreign residents who have opted to leave - either temporarily or on a more permanent basis. Many foreign governments, including the French and Germans, strongly advised their nationals to refrain from traveling to Japan or to leave entirely.
The Japan National Tourism Organization has been using its website - http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/ - to reassure travelers about conditions in the country, posting frequent updates from international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization and the International Air Transport Association.

In a statement, JNTO President Tadatoshi Mamiya admitted that the natural disasters have had "an enormous impact" on Japan's inbound tourism.

"While many areas in Japan remain unaffected by the disaster, they are also suffering from the sudden decrease in international visitors," he said. "We are deeply concerned that this will not only affect Japan's tourism industry directly, but also will have a negative impact on our industry partners around the world.

"JNTO is committed to provide timely information on the current situation in the travel industry and to the public through our we site," he added. "Once the situation in Japan stabilizes, we will strive to resume all promotional activities as soon as possible.

"We look forward to warmly welcoming our visitors in the very near future," Mamiya said.

In recent years, the government of Japan has set ambitious targets for inbound tourists. Last year, the tourism agency said it was aiming to attract 15 million tourists a year by 2013, more than double the 7.3 million foreign visitors to the country in 2006 and a sharp improvement on the 8.61 million arrivals recorded in 2010.


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